Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash
Feb 11, 2021
Confessions of a newly-vaccinated restaurant worker
Vaccine stories from industry pros who’ve managed to get appointments range from 'easy-peasy' to 'total shitshow'
A year into the pandemic, vaccine stories may well become the new quarantine story: everyone’s got one, and we all want to know what it was like for the next person. Isolation has made us hungry to relate.
My own vaccine story felt worth sharing to my restaurant worker community, in part for its early timing, in part for its takeaways, and in part, for its drama. In my 20 years in hospitality, I’ve never met a restaurant worker who doesn’t like to dish out a good story.
Last Wednesday, when “restaurant worker” was finally listed on NYC.gov as a qualifier for receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, I quickly secured an appointment for that afternoon—an occurrence I wholly attribute to being on the right website at the right time and blind luck, like scoring the last bar stool at Balthazar on a snowy December evening.
I started texting everyone I could think of: “Just got a vaccine appointment … FOR TODAY! Go to vaccinefinder.nyc.gov now! Go, go, GO!”
Immediately, they started texting back: “There’s nothing available.” “I got an appointment, but it’s in the Bronx.” “I’m using the state’s site, and it isn’t showing ‘restaurant worker’ as an option. Should I say I’m a grocery worker?”
The confusion was both frustrating and understandable, in-line with the quick-changing rules the restaurant industry has been adapting to since last March, and a reflection of the capricious decision-making coming down from the top.
Case in point: the events of the last two weeks, which saw Gov. Andrew Cuomo kowtow on Jan. 29 to pleas to allow the city’s estimated 24,000 restaurants to return to indoor dining at a capacity of 25 percent, only to be met—immediately, unsurprisingly—with less than industry-wide enthusiasm.
“Great news about indoor dining!” my neighbor texted just before noon that day.
I knew an announcement had been due, but I also knew a quick home workout would do me more good than sitting in front of my computer all day before getting myself to my restaurant for what has become a grueling Friday night shift of delivery and takeout. (New Yorkers still love to eat out on Fridays, even if it’s from wax-lined boxes at home.)
Without replying, I toggled from the message to my web browser, typed “indoor dining NYC” and quickly skimmed the results for further details.
I toggled back to my neighbor’s thread and punched out: “I’d feel a lot better about it if I qualified for a vaccine.”
Then, not wanting to come off as ungrateful or—worse—rude, I followed it with the emoji of the woman with the dumbfounded expression shrugging.
Like deli and grocery workers across the city, my coworkers and I have been doing our public-facing jobs since Memorial Day. But unlike us, those other sectors were already eligible to receive their shots. Still on Jan. 29, when Gov. Cuomo announced restaurants could return to indoor dining, he had yet to even include the state’s more than 650,000 restaurant workers in New York’s vaccine rollout plan.
I tossed my phone on the kitchen counter, pushed play on the yoga tutorial awaiting me on my iPad and walked 10 steps to my yoga mat. I laid down and took a deep breath. My mind was racing.
I must’ve repeated that sentence—the one I dashed off to my most-neighborly neighbor in a hot-headed, hot-take text—a dozen times that night. Regulars popped in to say congratulations. Other customers called asking when they could book a Valentine’s Day reservation.
I practiced delivering my response with different rejoinders.
I deflected: “As soon as I know the plan, you will too!”
I joked: “I haven’t even finished my morning coffee.” (This was at 6 p.m.)
Finally, I confessed to a regular that I’ve known for over a decade my truth: I was terrified to work indoors with customers eating before receiving a vaccine.
“You’re not already eligible?” he asked.
Again, I understood his confusion. And in the following days, I watched similar feelings on behalf of the city’s restaurant workers grow to resemble something closer to anger online (the closest thing we have to a water cooler now).
But on the following Monday, when Gov. Cuomo was challenged on why—and how—he could reopen restaurants without expanding the state’s current vaccine schedule to include—or, even plan for—restaurant workers, he called the conversation “cheap” and “insincere.”
Pressure from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday finally led Gov. Cuomo to softball the authority and responsibility of vaccinating restaurant workers to local governments with the weighted caveat of “if.” As in, if there are some vaccines left over, cities can give them to their restaurant folks, if they choose.
Eater was soon reporting “NYC Restaurant Workers Are Now Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine”—a story I watched unfold by hitting the refresh button there and on various websites, including NYC.gov. But on Tuesday night, no additions had been made there to the list of currently eligible recipients.
And then, it was Wednesday, and I had scored an elusive vaccine appointment.
In hindsight, getting the vaccine itself wasn’t that remarkable, as far as stories about government operations go. I had to wait past my appointment time, it felt unorganized, and I had to deal with more than a few folks who weren’t sure if I was qualified to be there. I had to repeatedly advocate for myself, and at one point, when a frustrated and clearly exacerbated nurse lost her cool, I had to do the thing that I do for a living: be hospitable. Listen. Respond with empathy. Smile (or smize, as we now do).
That same nurse lamented the ever-changing systems she and her colleagues are dealing with, to which I offered: “I know the feeling.”
Vaccine stories from industry friends who’ve managed to get appointments range from “easy-peasy” to “total shitshow.” The one thing we all agree on is that restaurant workers should be prepared to show a letter of employment.
Sharing my vaccine news at work last weekend inspired questions and enthusiasm, but none rang louder than those from customers eager to know what I thought it meant for the future of them eating indoors.
Not having the answer, I countered: “Tell me, are you ready to eat inside a restaurant?”
One customer paused, then said: “Maybe after I’m vaccinated, too.”
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